What's the advantage of stretching with a partner?
You can do a good stretching routine on your own, of course, but adding some partner stretching can help you achieve a greater degree of flexibility and range of motion. A partner can also provide motivation and vary your workout. It's a good idea to start with a trainer at a gym or a physical therapist, but after that you can do it with a friend or family membersomeone you'd like to spend time with anyway.
Is there a recommended technique?
There are many ways to stretch with a partner. One well-known type is called PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching. Though you can do it alone, a partner really helps. In one version of PNF called contract-relax stretching, you contract a muscle against resistance, in this case provided by your partner. Then you rest for a few seconds, after which your partner helps you move that muscle into a stretch (see illustrations). You repeat this three to six times, typically. After a while you can switch positions, so your partner stretches and you help. Many studies suggest that PNF can promote greater flexibility than regular stretching. It is often used by physical therapists for rehab of certain musculoskeletal problems.
What does the helping partner need to do?
If you're the helper, use your body properly for leverage, so that you don't hurt yourself or your partner. Use the large muscles in your legs and trunk to resist the stretcher's movement, rather than small muscles like those in your arms. It can be hard work. If you're standing, make sure your stance is balanced, with knees slightly bent, legs set wide, and abdominals contracted; don't slouch or tense your neck or shoulders. Avoid any unnecessary twisting or bending. If either of you feels any pain, stop.
Can you tear a muscle when stretching with a partner?
There's always some risk when you work muscles against resistance, so start gently. The risk of forcing a muscle beyond its range of motion increases if your muscles are very inflexible and if your partner provides too much force. The rule for any kind of stretching is that it should not hurt. Never try to twist a joint into an odd position or force it beyond its normal range. Starting with a trainer or physical therapist will give you a sense of how far you can go safely.
Did Dara Torres use PNF stretching before the Olympics?
No. Torres, who at age 41 became the oldest swimmer ever to compete in the Olympics, used something called "resistance stretching," an intense workout to promote flexibility and strength. The idea is to simultaneously contract and elongate your muscles. For example, to strengthen your biceps, you would flex your arm in a biceps curl while a partner pulled your hand in the opposite direction. This technique is being marketed via a website and DVDs, with hard sell from other athletes who claim to use resistance stretching. There is no published research showing benefits for this type of training, according to Dr. William Kraemer of the Human Performance Lab at the University of Connecticut. "It goes back to Charles Atlas in the 1920s. He called it 'dynamic tension.'" It isn't really stretching, Dr. Kraemer said, but rather a form of strength training.